Everyone wants to feel “in” on something.
That’s exactly why feature-length documentaries are a trending move for folks with something to sell, particularly musicians who have an album to promote.
Demi Lovato’s latest Youtube Original series (she now has two), Dancing with the Devil, documents the star’s journey since her near-fatal drug overdose in 2018. The four-part series shares in the name of her latest record, Dancing with the Devil… the Art of Starting Over. Demi herself called her new album the “non-official soundtrack” to the docuseries, making the two companion pieces.
The first episode in particular made media shockwaves, as Dancing with the Devil was the first time Demi has spoken at length about her 2018 overdose. The series covers a lot of ground in the trauma of Demi’s life surrounding her relapse: Sexual assault. Self harm. Disordered eating. Bullying. Depression. Heroin. Crack cocaine. Fentanyl. Through a number of interviews with friends, family, team members and Demi herself, audiences are given a fuller picture of Demi’s life story and her rebuild from tragedy, which inspired her latest work in music.
Beyond Demi’s status as a celebrity, making all events in her personal life headline fodder, her success as a musician rides on her ability to sell records. In the realm of pop stardom, the business of music is changing as the general public is more connected to their favorite artists than ever before. Gone are the days of marathon press junkets and back-to-back late night show appearances. The augmented intimacy that technology affords us has turned many stars onto promoting themselves through different avenues. A documentary is a genius way to both cater to fans and drum up positive PR.
The lens of the documentary favors its star, while promoting a special inside look at a subject’s most personal moments. Dancing with the Devil certainly leads with an angle that is sympathetic to Demi’s struggles. The series allows her to speak directly to her experiences in the way a live, network interview may not permit. Interview footage in Dancing with the Devil is framed with candor and authenticity at the forefront; qualities not unlike other streaming documentaries with celebrity subjects.
Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana and Lady Gaga’s Gaga: Five Foot Two, both on Netflix, as well as Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry on Apple TV, are examples of documentary films wielding the same promise of never-before-seen looks into the lives of pop music juggernauts. All different in the way their subjects are larger-than-life individuals, celebrity documentaries share in the promise of voyeurism while maintaining a comfortable distance.
Dancing with the Devil certainly answers our questions about Demi’s overdose and does so bravely– but also with control and production. To Demi’s credit, that may have been the only way to siphon through intense media scrutiny during her active recovery. Rather than rely solely on a media circuit tour to share her trauma story, a concise and compelling documentary presents her public statements neatly, cutting out need for public speculation. A documentary saves time and effort ahead of promotion of music releases or bids for Grammy nominations.
The documentary film is an evolving art form. After all, the digital age grants anyone the ability to document anything on film. A documentary then becomes less about what’s captured and more the storytelling angle the film takes on.
It’s also worth considering at what cost these tell-all style docs arrive to audiences. With the context plainly spelled out to audiences in a series or feature film, the final product (album) is wrung dry of nuance or lyrical secrecy. The events of Demi’s 2018 overdose are spelled out almost by the hour in her latest documentary series as well as the pitfalls of her mental health over the past decade. Buzz words and phrases from interviews about her life are translated to song titles on her new album (see: “Melon Cake” and “California Sober“), like Easter eggs for viewers of the series. Just by logging onto YouTube, casual fans feel like they have a close, connected understanding of Demi between the two projects.
The “Dancing with the Devil” music video, released concurrently with the series, falls to a literal interpretation of her life events. Many reacted negatively to the video, which is essentially a re-enactment of her infamous overdose and stay in the hospital. Some argued the blow-by-blow visual glamorized the dangers of drug use and overdose.
Those criticisms aside, it’s clear the music video is a reiteration of her story told over four episodes. What would public opinion be if Demi hadn’t offered a detailed narration of her overdose story first? In that scenario, the drama of the “Dancing with the Devil” music video as her sole comeback statement may have carried more weight. The music visual breaks no new ground in Demi’s artistic expression with the series as a precursor; we know the story already from streaming and headlines and social media.
In the business of marketing ones’ self in the entertainment world, biographical documentaries act as an extension of the curated image of celebrity. The long-form projects allow subjects to tackle the hard PR questions in one swipe and ultimately come out on top with a story arch ending in triumph. For Demi Lovato, Dancing with the Devil finishes up with the singer promising she’s the happiest, most well she’s ever been. For viewers, it’s easy to root for such a positive outcome knowing now the depth of her struggles. For consumers, Demi’s series deepens the parasocial relationship to her listeners ahead of a long-awaited album release. Today, a documentary film or series functions as a viable business option to keep all eyes on any one star.
Header Image: OBB Pictures & SB Films via YouTube